Reviewed by Emily Thompson
In his preface to Ana Minga’s Tobacco Dogs, translator Alexis Levitin sets the scene for the collection’s thirty-four poems: “Let us think of Hieronymus Bosch. Let us think of Francis Bacon. Let us think of Goya. These, to my mind, are her anguished compatriots” (viii). That the poet should find herself compared to visual artists is not strange: Minga has a vast ability to create strange, painful scenes out of words.
Minga is not yet thirty, but her poetry has been critically lauded and anthologized in her home country of Ecuador and throughout Latin America. She has also published fiction and journalism. Now, her work is catching on in the English-speaking world, as Bitter Oleander’s publication of Tobacco Dogs proves.
Tobacco Dogs was originally published in 2006 as A espaldas de Dios (Behind God’s Back), which suggests religious undertones that, unlike the dogs, are not central enough to warrant a mention on the title page. Tobacco Dogs is far from a book of devotional poetry, but neither does it deny God. Minga only denies his infallibility: he may be omnipresent, but his back is often turned. Minga’s poems show what the human condition is like when God looks away. In this world, “to be innocent is optional,” and any teacher who has assigned ‘optional’ homework knows exactly what this means (73). We find ourselves in a universe like Goya’s, whose most notable aspect is the overwhelming presence of horror.
The cover for the translation is an oil painting by Goya, Perro semihundido. It shows a dog, alone, mostly submerged in some dark substance. Levitin explains that “This is not just one small dog. It is each of us waiting to be swallowed by the earth, surrounded by a universe that says nothing” (viii). Minga has said that her best friends are dogs, and so this pictorial version of the human condition portrayed as a struggling dog aligns perfectly with the poet’s emotional attachment to her best friends. Her poems represent a lack of hope with regard to the human condition.
Levitin points out that “Minga is always on the side of the beaten, the down-trodden, the marginalized…whether mongrel dogs or incarcerated lunatics” (viii). This observation prepares us for a struggle between the oppressed and their oppressors, but Minga’s poetic sensibility focuses almost exclusively on those who suffer. When we are allowed a glimpse of those causing the suffering, they are not humans. The poems have a strong surrealist bent, and elements of the universe become characters just like dogs or people: “And he, the one who didn’t die / and she, the other without hope. / Time dressed him as a thing subordinate / dreams grew used to sleeping hanging from his head” (VIII, 30). This type of abstraction creates an existentialist atmosphere—of what use would it be to take up arms against time? The heavy presence of animals and unidentified, hard-to-visualize characters—“Awake / regaining life / they tell their tales in jaw-breaking whispers”—in Tobacco Dogs is reminiscent of Blanca Varela and the Peruvian Generation of 1950, whose verses addressed the social and political issues of the time indirectly, through stark imagery and elusive narratives (23).
Levitin’s brief prologue thoroughly illuminates the poems that follow and proves the strength of his grasp on the content of this text. Besides this textual understanding, Levitin’s thirty-odd years of translating poetry have given him a solid sense of which English words, through their sounds and their definitions, best convey the original meaning. The original poems are published en face, so readers may appreciate the translator’s work and get a feel for the way the different versions sound.
In a stubborn show of faithfulness to the original poem, Levitin refuses to alter a line’s word order when bringing it into English. This is especially true for first and last lines, which translators generally consider to be sacrosanct. The poem “XVIII” begins, “Through your body flow all the yearnings of a people” / “En tu cuerpo van todas la lujurias de un pueblo” (1). It would be more natural in English to leave the prepositional phrase “through your body” for the end of the line, but here loyalty supersedes flow. This is where Levitin reveals himself to be a poetic translator. Prose translation seldom allows for unconventional word order, but it can be an asset in poetry, forcing us to slow down and pay attention as the verse begins. It’s true, too, that Minga’s original poem plays with the natural order of clauses to focus our attention on the body at the beginning of the line.
Levitin’s translation of the poem VII is a lesson in idioms. Faced with a set of idiomatic lines at the beginning, “No doy pie con bola / ni puñete con cara,” which would literally be something like, “I don’t kick with a bullet / or punch with my face,” he finds two English phrases, similarly colloquial, that have to do with bad aim or clumsiness. Levitin settles on, “I can’t hit the broad side of a barn / I can’t tell my ass from my elbow,” preserving the sense of the lines as directly as possible (27). This alteration demands the addition of an extra “I can’t,” which mirrors the “no/ni” of the original.
Both the translation and the poetry itself are strongest in the third and fourth sections, titled “Drawer Full of Noise” and “Pandemonium.” The poems become fleshier, with something close to a narrative poetics, and Levitin adjusts accordingly. In one poem, “The Next Step Will Be the Last,” the stark mood of the setting is carried over with great effectiveness thanks to a cluster of monosyllables. The following lines, for example, require longer, fuller words in Spanish:
The next step will be the last
but one has to eat
and to sleep is to die (73)
Out loud, the English units come one after another like a depressing barrage; form and function are in perfect agreement.
Poetic translation can be frustrating in cases where the rhythms of the original disappear. But this occurs less often than one might expect, and many times—here, for example—the resulting change is a beautiful surprise. In general, the question of whether a translation might be better or worse than the original is unimportant, but it is heartening to see proof that something may be “found” in translation. Indeed, much has been found here: the translations and originals are both dark and poignant descriptions of the human condition. Both poet and translator have been careful to choose words that represent their ideas with great precision. Lovers of Goya’s Black Paintings will appreciate this book as a poetic counterpart to those murals: it brings comfort when it’s dark out and the weather—internal or external—turns cold.
Minga, Ana. Tobacco Dogs. Translated by Alexis Levitin. Bitter Oleander Press, 2013.